One to watch in camp

A poll of fans of teams in the AFC North concerning the best and worst pass defense in the division would likely report that the Baltimore Ravens are on top with Pittsburgh Steelers at the bottom. Over the past two off-seasons, the actions of the Steelers' front office would support such a perception.

Pittsburgh is in the process of completely overhauling the secondary while attempting to upgrade the pass rush via personnel and coaching changes. However, the statistics tell a slightly different story about the state of pass defense in the AFC North.

According to statistics compiled by (hereafter referred to as TMW), the Baltimore Ravens had the most efficient pass defense in the entire NFL. TMW ranks pass defenses on a play-by-play basis factoring in average yards gained per pass attempt, "Play Success Rate" and big pass plays surrendered to calculate what they call an "Effectiveness Rating" (EFR).

The Ravens had the best EFR in the NFL for the 2003 season, rendering more of the opposition's pass plays "ineffective" than any other team.

The Cleveland Browns had the second best pass defense in the AFC North, ranking 11th in EFR.

Perhaps surprisingly to the fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, they were third best in the division with an EFR rank of 20th.

The Cincinnati Bengals were not too far behind the Steelers, 24th in the NFL for EFR in pass defense.

TMW also rates and ranks all NFL teams in terms of how they play against the opposition's two top receivers. Much akin to a quarterback's passer efficiency rating, completion percentage, yards gained, yards per attempt, TDs, INTs all go into figuring the rating, which gives a decent idea of how the starting CB tandems around the league compare.

Bolstering the EFR statistics, the Ravens were 4th best in 2003 for holding the opposition's two top receivers in check. The Browns were 14th, the Steelers 27th, and the Bengals were 29th.

Almost any Steelers fan will tell you that Pittsburgh needs help at CB, particularly when it comes to the oft-torched Chad Scott. Bill Cowher apparently agrees, attempting to convince the team to draft a corner in the first round and Pittsburgh would eventually trade up in the second round for corner Ricardo Colclough.

In 2002, the entire league decided to go after the Steelers' secondary. However, the extent of the opposition's success might surprise a number of people.

In terms of EFR (5th) and "Cornerback Shutdown" ratings (3rd), the Steelers were top dogs in their division for 2002. That is the secondary that started the much-maligned corners of DeWayne Washington and Chad Scott.

The rest of the 2002 NFL EFR rankings for the division are as follows: Baltimore 10th, Cleveland 15th, and Cincinnati 32nd.

As for the rankings of the 2002 CB Shutdown ratings: Cleveland 20th, Baltimore 21st, and Cincinnati a dead last 32nd.

While the pass defenses for the Browns, Bengals, and Ravens all improved in 2003, the performance of the Steelers' secondary dropped off precipitously.

In the span of one off-season, Baltimore replaced Pittsburgh as the best pass defense in the North.

What happened?

Quarterback sacks appear to tell a big part of the story.

In 2002, the Ravens were 22nd in the NFL with 33 sacks. Most folks have probably already forgotten that the Steelers were 3rd in the NFL with 50 sacks.

In 2003, the situation was reversed. Baltimore jumped to 1st in the NFL with 47 sacks and Pittsburgh fell to 19th with only 34 sacks.

The reason for changes in sacks is often complicated, but the addition of OLB Terrell Suggs to the Ravens definitely helped. Suggs made 12 sacks, created 6 fumbles and made 1 interception in his role as pass rushing specialist.

In 2002, that guy for the Steelers was Joey Porter, who had 9 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 4 interceptions. Statistically, OLB Jason Gildon also had a great season, but fell of the face of the earth in 2003.

The variable is Porter.

The return of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to Pittsburgh should help the pass rush, but scheme can't do everything. The biggest boon to the pass defense will be a healthy Porter, if he has indeed returned to his pre-gunshot wound form.

Without Porter garnering much attention from the opposition in 2003, Gildon's statistics suffered dramatically. Furthermore, Cowher insisted former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis pull back the rushing OLBs.

Like the attempt to hide the deficiencies of SS Lee Flowers in 2002, the grand defensive scheme tried to mask Porter's limitations.

This put a great deal of pressure on the secondary and two starting CBs whose best days have passed them by.

As stated here before, the hiring of LeBeau and the pursuit of OLB Marcus Washington is quite telling.

There may be some concern that Porter will not be able to return to his explosive play, which was so helpful in disrupting the opposing passing game. There is also a lot riding on 2nd year player OLB Alonzo Jackson.

The drafting of Jackson alluded to the recognition of Gildon's diminishing skills. The dogged pursuit of Marcus Washington may demonstrate some dissatisfaction with Jackson's development or signal fears about Porter's ability to fully recover from his gunshot wound.

Given that the Steelers didn't panic and chase a pass rusher on day 1 of the 2004 draft, we would suggest that the Steelers were more concerned about Jackson and OLB Clark Haggans than reemergence of Porter.

While LeBeau will unleash a much faster secondary on the opposing QB, the key to the Steelers pass defense in 2004 will be Porter.

Porter will be the one to watch at St. Vincent.

Can one linebacker really make that much of a difference for a team's pass defense? Just take a look at the Baltimore Ravens and the addition of Terrell Suggs for answer to that question.

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